The world has seen worst than coloravirus, even at a time of poor technological advancement.

Popular historian Dan Carlin theorizes that perhaps this reality gave people of the past a sort of emotional or cultural immunity to such things. But while this may be true at the societal level, when one reads the sadness and desperation in many of the journals and accounts of parents being forced to bury their own children, I don’t believe they felt any less emotional torment. But even in the distant past, when levels of death reached substantial proportions, no amount of cultural immunity was sufficient to stop the panic and societal breakdown.

In 541 AD, what is believed to be the world’s first true pandemic arrived. The Plague of Justinian shook the globe and devastated whole societies. It came in waves over a period of roughly two hundred years and it’s estimated that as many as 50 million people died from it; over 25% of the world’s population. It was caused by the same bacterium that was also later responsible for the Black Death (1347-1351) – Yersinia pestis – and was spread by fleas hosted by rats.

In the city of Constantinople, the first wave of the disease lasted about four months, until so many rats and people had died that there was nowhere left for the bacteria to go.

“For one hundred days, Constantinople was a window onto Hell. Every day, one, two, sometimes five thousand of the city’s residents . . . would become infected. A day’s moderate fever would be followed by a week of delirium. Buboes would appear under the arms, in the groin, behind the ears, and grow to the size of melons . . . Sometimes the buboes would burst in a shower of foul-smelling pus. Sometimes the plague would become septicemic; those victims would die vomiting blood from internal hemorrhages that formed even more rapidly than the buboes. Those who contracted septicemic plague might have been the fortunate ones; though they all died, they at least died fast.” (Rosen)

In earlier times, epidemics such as this would have burned itself out after it crushed local populations because the infected would die before they could travel far. But by the this period in time, trade helped it onto ships where infected peoples carried it to different harbors.

Today we live in a world that is infinitely more connected than at any other time in history. A disease could travel halfway around the world in a matter of hours. Thankfully, we also have a level of medical sophistication and international cooperation that would have been impossible in previous eras.
I for one thank God I live in the modern world, and I thank God for our nurses, doctors, and health experts. But am I naive to think this level of devastation is less likely to happen today?

Sources:

– “Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire” by William Rosen

– “The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses” by Dan Carlin